Lê Mạnh Thát: Zen Master Chân Ðạo Chánh Thống (2)

Zen Master Trí Siêu Lê Mạnh Thát (Ảnh: Uyên Nguyên)


Composed of more than 400 writings in verse and prose the Thủy Nguyệt Tòng Sao is an extremely copious anthology, whose content is expressed in various literary genres. As for prose different styles such as ‘biền ngẫu,’ ‘phú,’ ‘ký,’ ‘chí,’ etc., are used. As for verse the author calls into play all the styles found in Chinese poetry such as ‘couplet in parallelism,’ eight-line regulated verse with five characters to a line, eight-line regulated verse with seven characters to a line, four-line truncated verse with five characters to a line, four-line truncated verse with seven characters to a line, and ancient style. Besides, a style typical of Vietnamese poetry called song thất lục bát (13) is used by the author for writing poems in Chinese. It may be said that they are the only “song thất lục bát” poems written in Chinese script of Vietnamese literature.

Some literary critics in the world have usually analyzed and studied literary works in terms of literary genres employed by their authors. This method of literary criticism proceeds from a regular phenomenon that a certain phase of literature is often characterized by a definite literary genre, which is in its turn to regulate the content of the same literary phase. In China, for instance, literary phases are often dealt with according to their own guiding literary genres such as 賦 during the Han Dynasty, 詩 during the T’ang Dynasty, 詞 during the Sung Dynasty, 劇 during the Yüan Dynasty, 小説 during the Ming Dynasty, and so on. The method has sometimes been applied in Vietnam, chiefly for literature during the Lý and the Trần Dynasty, in which the number of literary works is not large.

Apart from some advantages just mentioned the method has, however, some fundamental defects, one of which is its failure to present a panorama of literature of a definite phase or of an author, particularly of classical authors or those of classical type like Zen Master Chân Đạo. For them literature is regarded as a means to convey their views, or rather, their reflections on themselves and the age in which they find themselves. Zen Master Chân Đạo himself also declares his similar view in the Preface to the Thủy Nguyệt Tòng Sao: “verse is for exposing one’s aspiration, prose is for expressing one’s feeling. Therefore, those who were interested in the public life wrote verse as Tu Fu, 杜甫; and those who made use of things to represent their personal emotions were mostly of the same type as Ch’ü Yüan, 屈原.”

The view of “verse for exposing one’s aspiration, prose for expressing one’s feeling” was obviously advanced in Chinese literature in the old days, at least in Confucius’s time; for it was in the Preface to The Book of Odes, 詩 經, that Confucius formulated it. Thus, in classical literature verse and prose were conceived to be a way of exposing aspiration and communicating feeling, which was later summed up in the expression “Literature is for conveying the Tao.”

It is from such a literary view that we understand why and how the contents of Zen Master Chân o’s anthology were arranged in its present form. Indeed, the Thủy Nguyệt Tòng Sao was not based upon any definite genre of literature; that is to say, his writings whether in verse or prose are not arranged in accordance with the genres in which they are created. Consequently, it may occur that a poem is sometimes found to be followed by a writing or vice versa, and sometimes a five-character regulated verse is followed by a five-character truncated one, and so forth.


No doubt, such an arrangement, though it might make an impression of some disorder in the whole anthology, does represent the author’s view of “verse for exposing aspiration, prose for expressing feeling.” Indeed, both copies of the Thủy Nguyệt Tòng Sao begin with the text called Repentance (14). The date when it was written is not known. Yet, as a text of repentance it may rather fully represent the afore-said view of literature and art; that is, the author’s aspiration for serving sentient beings in the Triple World (15) with all his heart. In Vietnam it is the aspiration that Buddhist practitioners in all monasteries have to arouse within themselves every day. It is originally conveyed in a phrase extracted from a sūtra that has been recited at morning service in Buddhist temples and monasteries in Vietnam for centuries. So, if that is the aspiration Buddhist monks have to raise in their mind very early in the morning, what must they do to realize it? Let us read the next phrases, “we vow to be the first to enter the evil world of five impurities [for the benefit of all beings],” (16) and “we refuse to enter Nirvāṇa until the last being [in the Triple World] gets perfectly awakened.” (17) Obviously, the aspiration for engaging oneself in the “evil worlds of five impurities,” that is, in the realms fraught with hardship and suffering, has been put forward to be the top mission of all Buddhist followers in monasteries as well as amidst the world. In his own words we have known that Zen Master Chân Đạo was born of a Buddhist family. The date he came into existence, too, was the time when French Colonialists had just finished their campaign of occupying our country by force and began to carry out their extremely savage policy of colonial exploitation (1897).

A chain of events took place, some of which were the elimination of our traditional education in Chinese script and the introduction of Quốc Ngữ or Romanized Vietnamese as the official script of the country. These events engendered the movement to copy the so-called new culture, which was boosted by French Colonialists in their plot to enslave the Vietnamese for long, as in the words of a Christian priest who, then, was working in the North of our country: “The matter is of great importance. And subsequent to the founding of Catholicism, I think, the abandonment of Chinese script and the step-by-step substitution of Annamese [that is, Romanized Vietnamese] for it, and then the whole substitution of French are a measure, very political, very convenient, and very effective to found in the North a little France of the Far East.” (18)

To abandon traditional education was aimed at eliminating the intellectual circle in Vietnam, that is, all the intellectuals of the day. As far as its reason was concerned, it was Puginier who had said to Governor-general De Lanessan in 1887, “Because the intellectuals have a very great influence, very great prestige, and are respected when they serve as officials, it is necessary to eliminate them. As long as they exist, we will have to fear everything. For with their warm patriotism they refuse to recognize our domination; moreover, none of them agree to follow Catholicism.” (19)

This is the very germ of the situation described in Zen Master Chân Đạo’s words as “the modernist movement was growing strongly whereas Confucian schools were getting deserted.” In that period Confucianism had organic relations with Buddhism, as the Master’s father stated, “Fortunately, in the five successive generations of our family Buddhism has been taken as a castle, and Confucianism as its foundation.” The view of an organic connection between Buddhism and Confucianism was a great policy of Buddhism in the age of Nguyễn Phúc Chu (1692-1715), when the view of “living in Confucian patterns, aspiring for Buddhist ideals” began to affect all the subsequent developments in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism.

Yet, by the time Zen Master Chân Đạo was born, Confucianism no longer remained positive, and it was being overpowered by the enslaving cultural movement mentioned above. Those Buddhists who held the view of “living in Confucian patterns, aspiring for Buddhist ideals” as his father inevitably felt highly anxious and could not fail to urge their subsequent generation to seek to revive the Confucian role in social life after they had analyzed the course of its formation in the history as well as its present state:

If you fail to study [how to revive Confucianism] properly, you will hardly escape blames for being “a vehicle of gold and silver,” “an old water crane.” Those who have concerned themselves with Confucianism would find it hard to remain silent at the tragic fact that its true face, which was first covered in the ages of Hsin and Han and then by debased Confucianists on a larger scale, is being much more distorted by false statements from the supporters of the Modernist Movement. Moreover, the throng of scholars who are secretly misusing the doctrine of “dependence upon the circumstances” is not of small number. Reflecting upon our forefathers’ favor of nurturing and educating us, we feel extreme shame at not being able to repay them so much for their favors as those birds for their mothers’.

While reviewing the course of Confucian development in the history, Zen Master Chân Đạo’s father paid attention to the degeneration of this doctrine just in his age when a number of Confucianists made use of the principle of “dependence upon the circumstances” to plead for their pursuit of the modernist movement, of which he himself never showed approval. As a consequence, the most urgent requirement for Buddhists at the time was that they had to retreat into the Buddhist “castle” as a final support whereas the Confucianist “foundation” was being violently attacked. This explains partly why the Thủy Nguyệt Tòng Sao, which came into being in a period when “Confucianist education is already obsolete” as in Trần Tế Xương’s remark, was composed in Chinese.

After they had retreated into the Buddhist castle, the immediate demand for them was to “forsake trivial phrases and penetrate marvelous implications so that the ‘sun’ of meaning could shine more and more brightly, the ‘ocean’ of enlightenment could become as pure as possible; hence, not disappointing their forefathers.” In spite of this, Buddhism in Vietnam could not show a shadow of hope in the gloomy situation of the whole country. Following the uprising of Đoàn Trưng Nguyễn Văn Quý, which was suppressed in bloodshed in 1868, and particularly subsequent to the uprising of Võ Trứ in Phú Yên with the assistance of Trần Cao Vân in 1896, the life in Buddhist monasteries which had been reduced to the minimum became more and more declined in a country without sovereignty.

When Zen Master Chân Đạo began his monastic life under the instruction of Zen Master Ngộ Tánh Phước Huệ at the Kim Quang Temple in Huế in 1914, “the daily routine in monasteries was worse than any harsh policy, in which interest was shown not in education but in raising livestock. Laughing and crying on the occasions of welcoming and seeing off respectively were regarded to be unwholesome. Life in monasteries was unstable. Not much of the knowledge of Buddhist teachings was acquired. The more I expected, the more disappointed I felt,” as in the Master’s words.

Such was Buddhist education in the first decades of the twentieth century that it required a fundamental change, which was later commonly called the Buddhist Revival Movement and in which Zen Master Chân Đạo enthusiastically participated from the very beginning. A few years after being ordained to be a Buddhist monk, he went to the Thập Tháp Temple in Bình Định in 1928 and studied under Most Venerable Phước Huệ (1869-1945), as recorded in a note to the poem “Falling Ill in the Western Pavilion of the Thập Tháp Temple” (20) composed in 1958, “I recall I fell ill while I was studying there thirty years before.”

Though it was said that “interest was shown not in education but in raising livestock” during the first decades of the twentieth century, there were actually some seats of learning for the succeeding Buddhist generation. In the North there was the Vĩnh Nghiêm Patriarchal Temple under the charge of Patriarch Thanh Hanh (1840-1936) in Bắc Giang. In the Central was the Báo Quốc Patriarchal Temple presided by Patriarch Hải Thuận Diệu Giác (1801-1891). Of his nine disciples whose dharma-names all began with the word Tâm was Patriarch Tâm Tịnh (1879-1929), founder of the Tây Thiên Temple where the first Buddhist college of the country was built in 1935. In the Preface to the Thủy Nguyệt Tòng Sao it is recorded that Zen Master Chân Đạo took part in founding this college and teaching there, “In the autumn of Ất Hợi (1935) I returned to the imperial capital to found the Buddhist college at the Tây Thiên Temple. The number of students from the four directions became larger and larger. Besides Buddhist teachings, Confucianist literature, which was rather useful to students, was included.” In the South there was the Giác Lâm Patriarchal Temple founded by Patriarch Hoằng Ân Minh Khiêm (1850-1914), where many prominent monks and writers of the South such as Patriarch Từ Phong (1864-1938), translator of the 歸 源 直 指 演 義 , (21) were educated.

In addition to those big centers of learning, there were dozens of smaller ones which, due to the war against French colonialists, were organized on a small scale but could also produce outstanding Buddhist figures in the first half of the twentieth century such as Most Venerable Trung Thứ (1871-1947), Zen Master Tố Liên (1903-1977) in the North, Zen Master Viên Thành (1874-1929) in the Central, Zen Master Khánh Hòa (1877-1947) in the South, and so on.

Thus Buddhist education in the first decades of the twentieth century had remarkable achievements. Not only did it produce a highly competent force for Buddhism but it also devoted talented citizens to the country in the long struggle for national independence. In spite of this, our country at that time did not yet restore sovereignty and cultural tradition, let alone Buddhism which was then being violently persecuted. Consequently, the aspiration for “serving the world with all one’s heart,” which Zen Master Chân Đạo referred to, really reflected the general attitude of a Buddhist generation towards the existence of nation as well as the fate of Buddhism at the time.

Naturally, the fact that Zen Master Chân Đạo, as being a Buddhist, vowed to serve with all his heart sentient beings in the world implies first his faithful service to Buddhism, which has been publicly determined since Zen Master Định Không’s time (730-808) to be the abiding principle of Vietnamese Buddhism: Buddhism incorporated in national existence. Accordingly, to serve Buddhism is, in Vietnam, a way of serving the nation. Commonly, in order to serve something it is necessary to understand its true needs as well as its circumstances. If so, what are true needs and circumstances of Buddhism in Vietnam at Zen Master Chân Đạo’s time?

Its circumstances have been partly pointed out in his description that “the daily routine in monasteries was worse than any harsh policy, in which interest was shown not in education but in raising livestock.” For that reason, the primary need was to improve Buddhist education by transforming individual educational institutions in monasteries and Buddhist centers mentioned above into large-scale educational institutions, in which both monkhood and lay people would have equal opportunities for studying Buddhist teachings and applying them to their everyday living so that they could no longer carry on any improper activities due to their lack of knowledge.

We have seen that just as the Tây Thiên Buddhist College was founded, Zen Master Chân Đạo as being a student of it could deliver a lecture on the Fourth Noble Truth at the Từ Quang Temple in 1934, and another one on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness a year later. The former was not published, but the latter was inserted in the Forum of the periodical Viên Âm in 1935. It is his only extant lecture written in Vietnamese and one of the first writings in Vietnamese prose of Buddhist literature in the twentieth century. This points out the indispensable need of expounding Buddhist teachings to Buddhist followers at the time.

Later on he was still interested in education until his death. In 1958 when a Buddhist college was founded at the Thập Tháp Monastery, where he had ever taken Buddhist courses as a young monk, he was invited to work there as a lecturer in Buddhist Teachings. In his Instructions at the opening ceremony of the new school year his aspiration for serving the cause of Buddhism was once again raised. He stressed the fact that Buddhism in Vietnam was then being persecuted by the regime of Ngô Đình Diệm, and that his students should bravely defend against it: “A Great Man whose aspiration is nurtured as lofty as Heaven should not aim at where the Tathāgata passed. It is, however, a pity that the evil is much stronger than the good such that those possessing wide knowledge and profound understanding all feel anxious. Let’s ‘go straight to the dragon’s den to take the pearl from inside its jaws’ instead of remaining inactive in our thatched cottage, and bravely do righteousness just on the very site of recreation. Only if one can do so is one then to be called a Great Free Man with unlimited capacity.”

Those enthusiastic instructions naturally had their own effects. They were delivered to a generation of young monks, of whom some would become pivotal figures of Buddhism in Bình Định a few years later. Accordingly, it may be said that his instructions could raise some consciousness in Buddhist monks of their responsibility for the growth of Buddhism. In this connection, it would not be an exaggeration for us to say that those instructions actually made a remarkable contribution to the achievement of the 1963 Buddhist Movement just in its preparatory phase.

Those educational activities, which Master Chân Đạo determined to be of his major task, were tenaciously carried out for a long time, at least until the 1962s, when we were taking the last course in Buddhist teachings at the Quy Thiện Temple, of which he took charge for nearly thirty years. It was his enduring efforts in the field of education that helped improve the knowledge of monastic Buddhists and eradicate those evils which ever caused some misunderstanding of the Buddhist role in society. One of these evils was that Buddhist monks’ activities began to show the increasingly general tendency towards gratifying lay Buddhists’ ritual needs rather than instructing them to apply Buddhist teachings to their everyday living.

In reality, as the Annam Buddhist Studies Association was founded, the first task it set forth consisted in two main points, as recorded in the Viên Âm No. 14 (1935); that is, (1) improving way of life in the Buddhist Order with the emphasis laid on monastic rules by means of close supervision of Brahmācāra or Pure Conducts of the monkhood; (2) restricting conducts harmful to the reputation of Buddhism, of which the trend towards meeting lay Buddhists’ needs for religious rituals had to be noticed and changed. In the Thủy Nguyệt Tòng Sao it is evidently shown through a series of his works that Master Chân Đạo participated positively in the carrying out of this task.

“A Judgment in Behalf of the Buddhist Association in Thừa Thiên Province,” (22) for instance, tells us about the case of a monastic member who “possessed neither a trace of ink in his bosom nor an easiest-to-write character in his eyes” and had such “unwholesome livelihood” that he should be purged from the Order. Here by “unwholesome livelihood” it undoubtedly refers to some way of making living not in accordance with Buddhist disciplinary rules. In addition to this, it was necessary to reorganize Buddhist activities systematically, particularly in monasteries, by holding traditional ordinations for the purpose of “guiding the subsequent generation and preserving the Buddha-wisdom,” in which Master Chân Đạo was greatly interested and took part warmly as recorded in his writings such as “The Ordination Schedule.” (23)

Furthermore, it was necessary to criticize disputes among some members of the Buddhist Order, which would weaken the practice of Buddha-Dharma and turn the sacred temple into the “land of dense undergrowth,” “the place of unpleasant troubles,” and cause the growth of unwholesome ideas. In the words of “Competition between Certain Monks for the Head of Temple,” (24)

晨 昏 攝 念 禮 空 王
世 事 徒 勞 莫 較 量
憎 愛 未 忘 知 法 弱
怨 親 難 解 恨 魔 強
祇 園 化 作 荊 楱 地
淨 境 翻 成 熱 惱 場
警 醒 愛 河 名 利 客
却 酣 利 鎖 與 名 繮

Pay homage to King Śūnyatā (25) attentively morning and evening
Instead of concerning yourselves with troublesome affairs in the world.
Hatred and desire being not destroyed, the practice of Dharma would be weakened;
Enmity and friendship being not abandoned, the force of Passions would be strengthened.
The Jeta Park (26) has become the land of dense undergrowth;
The Pure Land has turned into the realm of unpleasant defilements.
I advise those who are still attached to passion, fame and interest
Not to be infatuated with the “lock” of interest and the “rein” of fame.

Those disputes were chiefly caused by some monks’ pursuit of fame and interest. From his view not only lay people were occupied with striving for fame and interest, but a number of Buddhist devotees who had been practicing the control of their minds showed their desires for humble values of the world. In the words of “Fame Persuading Interest,” (27)

君 不 見
釋 徒 守 高 潔
避 我 畏 君 似 蛇 蠍
遑 知 內 外 不 相 關
心 慕 吾 儕 如 聖 哲

You have not seen
That Buddhist followers who are leading pure and noble lives
Keep away from you and me as from snakes and centipedes.
Only those unaware of the relation between the inward and the outward
Respectfully regard us to be saints and sages.

On the other hand, it was necessary to appreciate the preservation of pagodas and temples as the solemn, sacred support for the masses and at the same time to criticize strongly those who maintained the opposite view. In a writing about the Thiền Tôn Temple entitled “An Outline Record of the Thiền Tôn Temple on Mount Thiên Thai” (28) Zen Master Chân Đạo presented his view bluntly, pointing out those who had let this patriarchal temple fall into ruin and those who had tried to preserve and renovate it.

His next step in the plan of reorganizing the Order was to reduce to the minimum some activities that placed too much emphasis on religious rituals at lay followers’ and thus, if not properly performed, could exert some unwholesome influence on monastic living. The reason for such a restriction was that some Buddhist monks who had not been well trained in monasteries made use of these religious services as the principal means of gaining their own livelihood. In the poem “Interference” (29) they were regarded by Zen Master Chân Đạo as “bluebottles,”

可 憐 失 業 半 為 僧
搖 尾 哀 求 不 忍 聞
涉 習 科 儀 三 數 月
人 間 應 赴 作 青 蠅

How poor they are!
Because of unemployment they have entered the monastery.
It is so pitiful to hear their moaning entreaties
With “their tails wagging.”
After roughly three months’ study and practice of rituals
They work as “bluebottles” in religious services at lay people’s home.

In face of this tragic situation the Master wondered whether it might be “cured.” For he considered it a kind of “tubercular bacteria” that would soon destroy completely the “lungs” of Buddhism. In the poem “It Is Hard to Cure,” (30)

一 聽 禪 門 文 字 離
城 狐 社 鼠 總 歸 依
方 袍 圓 頂 猶 人 也
害 肺 痨 虫 豈 易 醫

Upon hearing that Zen is not founded on words and letters,
City “foxes” and village “rats” came taking refuge [in it.]
With heads shaven, clad in robes, they look just like monks,
But truly “tubercular bacteria,” which are not easy to kill.

Living in the Master’s time, Buddhists followers had not only to confront such offensive facts but also seek for some urgent measure to regulate and improve Buddhist living of their age. This was the requirement set forth by the Annam Buddhist Studies Association in its plan for vitalizing Buddhism, and published in the Viên Âm mentioned above.

Following the efforts to stabilize Buddhist living was the need to reorganize its forces and activities. In 1930, when he was studying and lecturing at the Tây Thiên Buddhist College, Zen Master Chân Đạo showed his aspiration for the unification of Buddhist forces as expressed in his talk with Zen Master Tố Liên, an outstanding figure of Buddhism in the North. And in the great congress of Buddhist representatives of the three parts–North, Central and South–of the country held at the Từ Đàm Temple in Huế, Zen Master Chân Đạo wrote a poem to congratulate his dharma-friend Tố Liên,

三 圻 合 徹 憶 前 言
海 會 重 重 湧 素 蓮
鐵 石 有 懷 登 鷲 嶺
桑 滄 遺 恨 泣 祇 園
金 縢 詳 記 當 時 跡
寶 月 高 懸 萬 里 天
一 統 現 成 酬 往 約
由 君 顯 實 我 開 權

I remember our talk about the unification of the three parts.
Out of the congress as great as ocean has a Pure Lotus grown, (31)
With his firm aspiration for reaching the Vulture Peak Mountain (32)
And his bitter feeling over the desolation of the Jeta Park.
Since our plans were elaborately drawn up in advance,
The precious moon has been shining high in the vast sky.
Now that the unification comes true as in our former wish,
Truth will be formulated by him, and skillful means indicated by me.

In the poem he cited the couplet dedicated to himself by Zen Master Tố Liên and considered it a prophecy telling exactly what would happen to the cause of unification of Vietnamese Buddhism,

“Ten years ago he dedicated to me a regulated verse, of which the last two lines read,
法 軌 將 來 君 得 志
三 圻 合 徹 妄 談 耶
How satisfied you are with the view of Buddha-dharma in the future!
That the three parts may be totally unified is hardly nonsense.
It now proves to be a prophecy.”

In reality, the poem of which the two lines have just been cited obviously deals with some possibility of Buddhist unification in his talk with Zen Master Tố Liên in 1937 or earlier. The date may be definitely determined owing to the fact that he composed a poem in reply to Zen Master Tố Liên’s, which was later published in The Viên Âm (33) (1937) with the title “Respectfully Dedicated to the Wandering Zen Brother Tố Liên.” (34)

From those poems it is evident that these two outstanding Zen masters drew up some plans for Buddhism of their age, which aimed at nothing but the advancement of Vietnamese Buddhism,

非 關 塵 世 留 虛 跡
為 契 時 機 作 遠 途
Not intended for leaving our deluded traces in the world,
But for the time being that long-term plans were drawn up.

Therefore, when the dream of unifying Buddhist followers in the three parts of the country came true through the great congress at the Từ Đàm Temple in 1951, the Master wrote several poems of congratulation such as “Dedicated to the Two Dharma-Leaders of the North and the South” (35) and “Dharma-Friend Tố Liên’s Arrival at the Imperial Capital” (36) in addition to the poem dedicated to his dharma-friend Tố Liên cited above.

In the poem “Dedicated to the Two Dharma-Leaders in the North and the South” there is a remarkable point that the Buddhist flag was for the first time referred to in a literary work. Later it became the official symbol for the 1963 Campaign of Vietnamese Buddhism. The aspiration and objective of the Master as well as of the congress of unifying Buddhism represented nothing other than their great efforts to transform every family in Vietnam into a Buddhist one; that is, to improve their living and working conditions in accordance to the greatest ideals of Buddhism,


The South should be viewed as the North and vice versa;
Thereby, no place would be necessarily considered the central.
Through the unification of the three parts is the principle of prajñā formulated.
For the benefits of both oneself and others is the udumbara born.
The five-colored light is represented in the flag of cloud.
The thousand forms of universal suchness appear in the “symbol of ocean.” (37)
Whether being displayed or included depends on marvelous force,
With which homes and families would all turn into the pure ones.

In the year that followed (38), during the great congress of Vietnamese Saṃgha held in Hà Nội Zen Master Chân Đạo, as a delegate from Huế, wrote a chain of poems to congratulate the congress, of which a poem was dedicated to Most Venerable Tuệ Tạng (1889-1959), then elected as Supreme Patriarch of the Saṃgha. Once again the aspiration for the unification of Buddhism, without discrimination of North and South, was performed and the need for giving due prominence to virtue and wisdom of Buddhist monks was stressed,


Under the instructions received from the Nirvāṇa assembly
His strict observance of precepts accords with the marvelous mind;
His wisdom, which transcends the autumn light, illuminates the “ocean symbol”;
His virtue, which shines as the spring sun, warms the Zen forest.
Admired by deities and human beings in the North and the South,
He has found no match at Literature and Dharma so far.
May he, out of his compassion for sentient beings, often appear in the world
To enlighten those who are sinking in illusion!

Buddhism is naturally a cultural phenomenon. Accordingly, in whatever way it may be organized, the fundamental question is for what purpose it is expected to serve. In this connection, the Master declared clearly that the Buddhist organization was for the dissemination of its living principles to Buddhist and non-Buddhist people, for “turning every family into a pure Buddhist one.” In order to carry out this dissemination, which is termed “the propagation of Dharma” in Buddhism, the primary requirement is of education. We have discussed the urgent need for enhancing and enlarging Buddhist education at the Master’s time; yet, we have not dealt with what the content of that education was from the Master’s view.

Merely with a glimpse at the Thủy Nguyệt Tòng Sao the reader may have the distinct impression that its author received an ancient education which was rather comprehensive not only in Buddhist teachings but further in other branches of learning such as Confucianism, Taoism, and some branches of technology. It may be said that this is an educational system typical of a particular tradition in Vietnam; for, in the Master’s view “the Buddha is just in the world, and the Perfect Enlightenment may not be realized outside the world. Therefore, a practitioner of Bodhisattva ideal has to enter the world for the benefit of sentient beings, and deliver those Buddhist teachings that are suitable for them, wandering in hells as if walking in an imperial park, taking off a valuable robe to put on a ragged one. If he, though not capable of doing so, is fond of talking about the deluded, the non-action while loving the apparent and pursuing fame and interest, how can he free himself out of the suffering of the three realms, or take a bath in the lotus pond of eight-attributed water?”

Based upon the concept that “the Buddha is just in the world, and the Perfect Enlightenment may not be realized outside the world,” the Buddhist education is in essence never separated from the secular general education, which is to some extent the very basis of the former one. In nearly two thousand years’ existence of Buddhist education in our country that has become a fundamental principle. In whatever times it was well applied, it could then contribute excellent citizens to the nation and Buddhism. On the contrary, whenever it was violated, not only Buddhism but the whole nation had to suffer seriously harmful effects. In the history of our country there have been numerous illustrations that can prove the soundness of that principle, just from the times of Mâu Tử, Khương Tăng Hội (200?-280) to the present.

Through a series of nearly nineteen poems grouped under “Phiếm Ngâm,” 泛 吟, the Master imagined himself to be in various circumstances of a hunter, a weaver, an old fisherman, a woodsman, a plowman, a herdsman, an instrumentalist, a chess-player, a poet, a heavy drinker, even one who wished to be a Buddha, or a king, or a lord, and so on. Obviously, those people of various types in society can all be Buddhists; and the Buddhists may find themselves in various circumstances as such, not only in all parts of our country but all over the world.

The essential point is what Buddhists, when finding themselves in such circumstances, should do to perform their own Buddhist characters, to apply Buddhist teachings to everyday life. There is no doubt that such jobs as weaving, plowing, trading, teaching, etc., are always necessary in any civilized society, aimed at meeting everyone’s needs like food, clothing, housing, and studying. Since the old days those jobs have always been necessary to society; and every struggle has also proceeded from such needs. The human kind has struggled against famine, cold, ignorance, etc., in many different forms, from the overthrow of a regime, a government to the discovery of a new principle, a new structure of materials. Accordingly, if the function of weaving is to “warm those who are suffering from the cold,” that of farming is to bring about


A great number of granaries bursting with grain,
And villagers’ singing joyfully while husking rice.

Apart from various jobs necessary to social life mentioned above, even some activities supposedly not related to production or struggle such as writing poetry, playing chess, and so on, should be viewed from a new point. Since the old days verse and prose have been considered in China as well as in Vietnam to be strong weapons capable of eliminating enemy. The Emperor Thái Tông (1218-1277) of the Trần Dynasty said, “The pen of literature can sweep away thousands of troops in the battle-field.” (39) It was from the view of literature and art as a kind of weapon that Zen Master Chân Đạo wrote about the circle of poets as follows,


Learning to write verse under the lamp by the window
In order to push back enemy and frighten men unexpectedly.
If the pen is used for now copying now doodling at will,
It then will be like depending on another’s nostrils [for breathing].

The function to “push back enemy and frighten men unexpectedly” of literature and art is a truth, though it is not easy to be done. Nonetheless, literature and art are not always to perform their functions as such. On the contrary, if they are wrongly used, they may produce a hack writer whose pen is used merely for “copying or doodling uselessly” and whose breathing then has to “depend on another’s nostrils” to work. For that reason, a Buddhist does not fail to adapt himself to any righteous job; for every job requires some course of training under a master; that is, education. If it is the case, the Buddhist education must be a general and interdisciplinary one.

The Thủy Nguyệt Tòng Sao gives us an example. The chain of fifty-four poems grouped under the headline “Vịnh Cổ” (40) can show us how wide the Master’s knowledge of the ancient history of China is. Conventionally, it is not necessary to those who are treading the path leading to Perfect Enlightenment to acquire some knowledge of ancient history, let alone to reflect upon it or write poems about some renowned characters, though merely of a certain period, in Chinese history; for it is a matter for politicians alone. If so, why did the Master study it? The answer is implied in the citation above; that is, “a practitioner of Bodhisattva ideal has to enter into worldly life for the benefit of sentient beings.”

As far as the matter is concerned, it should be noticed that all the writings related to contemporary political issues were thrown away by the Master just as they had been composed, which was revealed by himself in the Preface to the three-part version of the Thủy Nguyệt Tòng Sao, “Those works of mine, in verse and prose alike, that have been composed either unable to convey my true inspirations or related to contemporary political issues were thrown away.” Nevertheless, in addition to poems of ancient history that are definitely related to political issues some of his are discovered to have more or less dealt with that aspect. For instance, in a ‘couplet in parallelism’ dedicated to the District Chief Trạch Chi Ngô Đình Nhuận, the Master writes,

If governance is made benevolent, … even the wildest beings may be tamed;
If officials are promoted in terms of their own righteousness, … the source of their ambitions may be dried up. (41)

Reading it, we may recognize the political view of Zen Master Chân Đạo. And this is nothing other than a traditional view that formerly became the guiding principle in the political system of Vietnam in the times of Lý Thường Kiệt and Trần Hưng Đạo. It was realized in the personality of the former that “internally his mind is mild and brilliant; externally his appearance is plain and humane,” or formulated in a statement of the latter that “for the nation to be constantly stabilized, let the people’s strength not be exhausted”.

Generally speaking, from the Master’s view the education of Buddhism should not be limited to the Buddha’s teachings alone but it should be developed into an all-round education as has ever been implemented in the educational tradition of Vietnam, of which he himself was a typical student. It was from his training in such an education and his aspiration for “serving the world with all his heart” that Zen Master Chân Đạo, apart from his activities within the Buddhist order, tried to have a very close relationship with lay Buddhists of various social classes, and even with those who were not Buddhist followers.

~ English translation by Đạo Sinh

(13) lit. “double-seven six eight.” A verse in this style is composed of successive sets of four lines with seven words to each of the first two lines, six words to the third line, and eight words to the fourth line. For examples,
Khai lạc thiên tâm mai số điểm
Phù trầm thế cuộc tửu tam bôi
Thâm tiêu chích ảnh bồi hồi
Trùng thanh tức tức ám thôi sầu trường
Khuất chỉ tự tang thương biến cải
Tế chinh trần ám tải nan thông
Biệt thời vi oán đông phong
Kim niên y cựu đào hồng tái hoa
(Xuân Tiêu Viễn Cảm)
(14) 懺 悔 文, Sám Hối Văn
(15) Skt. Kāmadhātu (World of Desire), Rūpadhātu (World of Form), and Ārūpyadhātu (World of Formlessness)
(16) 五 濁 惡 世 誓 先 入
(17) 如 一 衆 生 未 成 佛 終 不 於 此 取 泥 洹
(18) Author’s note: Cao Huy Thuần, Giáo sĩ thừa sai và chính sách thuộc địa của Pháp tại Việt Nam (1857-1914), Hà Nội, Nhà Xuất bản Tôn giáo, 2002, tr. 443.
(19) Author’s note: Nguyễn Xuân Thọ, Bước đầu của sự thiết lập hệ thống thuộc địa Pháp ở Việt Nam (1858-1897), Tác giả xuất bản, 1995, tr. 436.
(20) 十 塔 寺 西 樓 卧 病 , “Thập Tháp Tự Tây Lâu Ngọa Bệnh”
(21) Quy Nguyên Trực Chỉ Diễn Nghĩa, lit. “Explanation of the Direct Pointing to the Source”
(22) 代 擬 承 天 省 佛 教 會 桉 辭, “Đại Nghĩ Thừa Thiên Tỉnh Phật Giáo Hội Án Từ”
(23) 戒 壇 節 次 榜, “Giới Đàn Tiết Thứ Bảng”
(24) 與 某 某 僧 暗爭 寺 主 互 將 擊 搏, “Dữ Mỗ Mỗ Tăng Ám Tranh Tự Chủ Hỗ Tương Kích Bác”
(25) that is, the Buddha
(26) Skt., Jetavana, the park dedicated to the Buddha and his disciples by the Crown Prince Jeta of an Indian kingdom.
(27) 名 喻 利 歌 , “Danh Dụ Lợi Ca”
(28) 天 台 禪 宗 寺 誌 略, “Thiên Thai Thiền Tôn Tự Chí Lược”
(29) 濫 厠, “Lạm Xí”
(30) 難 醫, “Nan Y”
(31) referring to Zen Master Tố Liên, whose name literally means Pure Lotus.
(32) Skt., Gṛdhrakūṭa, the mountain where the Buddha is said to have been delivering discourses since his Great Enlightenment.
(33) No. 27, p. 51
(34) 次 韻 敬 贈 遊 方 僧 素 蓮 禪 兄, “Thứ Vận Kính Tặng Du Phương Tăng Tố Liên Thiền Huynh”
(35) 全 國 佛 教 統 一 大 會 事 完 贈 北 南 二 法 主, Toàn Quốc Phật Giáo Thống Nhất Đại Hội Sự Hoàn Tặng Bắc Nam Nhị Pháp Chủ”, lit. “Dedicated to the Two Dharma-Leaders of the North and the South at the End of the Great Congress of the National Buddhist Unification”
(36) 北 越 素 蓮 法 侶 乗 飛 艇 來 京 賦 呈, Bắc Việt Tố Liên Pháp Lữ Thừa Phi Đỉnh Lai Kinh Phú Trình, lit. “The North Vietnam Dharma-Friend Tố Liên’s Arrival at the Imperial Capital by Plane”
(37) Skt. sāgaramudrā, indicating the vastness of the meditation of the Buddha, the vision of all things.
(38) Nhâm Thìn, 1952
(39) 文 筆 掃 千 軍 之 陣, “văn bút tảo thiên quân chi trận.” Cf. Lê Mạnh Thát’s Toàn Tập Trần Thái Tông, 2004, pp. 340, 636.
(40) 咏古, lit. “Poems Written on Ancient Subjects”
(41) 為 政 在 寬 感 物 曾 傳 馴 野 雉 潔 己 以 進 超 人 偏 慕 酌 貪 泉


* Nhà thơ Chân Văn Ðỗ Quý Toàn, GS Trí Siêu Lê Mạnh Thát và Nhà văn Phạm Xuân Ðài (Ảnh: Uyên Nguyên)

Chuyên mục:Bài hay trên net.


Trả lời

Điền thông tin vào ô dưới đây hoặc nhấn vào một biểu tượng để đăng nhập:

WordPress.com Logo

Bạn đang bình luận bằng tài khoản WordPress.com Đăng xuất /  Thay đổi )

Facebook photo

Bạn đang bình luận bằng tài khoản Facebook Đăng xuất /  Thay đổi )

Connecting to %s

Trang web này sử dụng Akismet để lọc thư rác. Tìm hiểu cách xử lý bình luận của bạn.

%d người thích bài này: